Monday, May 25, 2015

Soul Music

I bought my tickets to see Sleaford Mods months before their gig in Brighton on Friday night: I was so excited and intrigued to see the Nottingham band whose most recent two albums I had been endlessly playing since I started to hear about them last year. Words seem to experience a rare inadequacy when it comes to describing their music but I’ll give it a go: sparse, frantic punk/hip-hop beats overlaid with splenetic, socially observant, potty-mouthed lyrics delivered in a rapid-fire East Midlands accent. Vocalist Jason Williamson has produced half a dozen albums since he became disillusioned with guitar music in 2007, the last three – Wank, Austerity Dogs and Divide and Exit - with sampler/musician Andrew Fearn. And at Concorde 2, their stripped-down sound is reflected in their stage set-up: laptop on a flight case; mike and stand.

When they take the stage and launch into their set, the atmosphere is electric and the pace relentless. For each song, Fearn presses ‘go’ on the laptop and then stands back swaying to the rhythm, swigging a beer and grinning as Williamson sprays machine-gun lyrics at the audience. And what lyrics: to say that Jason Williamson thinks modern life is rubbish, and that everyone and everything is a target, is an understatement; he writes from his own experiences, disappointments and frustrations. This on middle management: “middle men/the metropolis of discontent and broken dreams/red and orange lights and old men”; and on the acceptance of dead-end work, “I got a job/I rot away in the aisles of the Co-op, mate, no prob”. But it is not just the more prosaic aspects of life that Williamson rages against. There is more pointedly political social commentary: “Cameron’s hairdresser got an MBE/ I said to my wife you better shoot me/It’s all gone wrong”. If the self-importance of jumped-up jobsworths make daily life a trial, the managers at the top are just as self-serving.

Most of the set is taken from the last two albums but there are a few tracks from new album, Key Markets. After one, Bronx In A Six, that ends in a stream of profanities, Williamson observes, “a bit intense that, not much of a party tune, not like this one”, before launching into Tiswas. And it strikes me at that point, coming in the middle of a run of stand-out tracks – A Little Ditty, McFlurry, Fizzy, Tied Up In Nottz – how uplifting these songs can be. The audience is certainly lifted: there is a lot of singing along and a frantic moshpit down the front. At one point, Williamson berates someone in the audience for swearing; “just because we swear don’t mean you have to; this is our job”. When Williamson jokingly mistakes which city they are in, it’s a sign of how hard they work at this job: they have been gigging non-stop for pretty much a year now. When the final number, Tweet Tweet Tweet, opens with, “I get a shaky start to Tuesday/sweat stains on bus windows/I don't want to ruin my coat/But that’s just the way it goes”, it is a reminder of the banality of the nine to five daily grind.

Sleaford Mods’ music is innate, visceral, it comes from the gut, the heart, the soul and it is tremendous. And occasionally, you get a glimpse of Williamson’s belting, soulful voice from his days in more traditional bands. But this is now; it’s like Picasso doing all those orthodox figurative drawings and then saying, “hold on; this is how I see people and the world” (I am conscious that I have just referenced Picasso and I am in danger of disappearing down the rabbit hole or up my own…). Nothing can prepare you for how good these blokes are: I had read recommendations, listened to the albums, watched footage. But seeing them live is altogether different; they are breath-taking. There is something perversely pure about their sound and performance. There is nobody like Sleaford Mods. No comparisons suffice but, if pushed, I would say it is like Crass smashing into Kraftwerk on an A road between Derby and Detroit.

Inevitably, Sleaford Mods have their critics but for any detractors there are many more admirers. Anyway, I would rather take Iggy Pop’s word than Noel Gallagher’s. Sleaford Mods remind you what music can be like when you’re young (oh, the irony: the pair are in their early forties), when you have original ideas, when everything doesn’t get bent to fit someone else’s template, someone else’s formula, someone else’s set of rules. Fuck that.

Key Markets, Sleaford Mods' new album, is released on 10th July.

Saturday, May 23, 2015


So, there I was, two weeks before the general election, getting excited about the opinion polls for the eight East Sussex seats. Set to buck the south-east Tory trend, the county was on-course to be a multi-coloured ribbon of red, yellow, blue and green. The reality, of course, was different: the Lib Dems lost Lewes and Eastbourne - curiously the electorate rewarded the Tories for downgrading maternity services and closing A & E in this town - and Labour failed to take Hastings and Brighton Kemptown. The only bright spots were Labour winning Hove and the Greens holding on to Brighton Pavilion. Otherwise, East Sussex is as blue as the rest of southern England.

It’s not all bad, though. Labour came second in the seat of Mid Sussex, Nicholas Soames' fiefdom covering the West Sussex area around Haywards Heath and East Grinstead. This may seem like the sound of straws being clutched at, but Labour has been a distant third in every general election since the seat’s creation in 1974; this result is seismic. It has made me realise that, for any left-leaning person, if Cameron’s lazy Thatcherism is to be truly opposed, only Labour can do it. It is a broad church, other anti-Tory parties are not: the Green Party has barely broken out of single issue politics and, whilst smaller parties on the left are excellent at local campaigning, their electoral performance is a token. A friend in Gloucestershire told me he realised, as he campaigned unsuccessfully for Labour to re-take the seat of Stroud that was lost in 2010, that any anti-Tory position other than Labour is a luxury: we cannot afford to argue the purity of our political positions whilst people are victims of the bedroom tax, cuts in council services and the tearing apart of the hard-fought-for social safety net.

However, it wasn’t the hope of the Mid Sussex result that made me finally re-join Labour, the party I have always voted for, was active in in London during the 1980s but was last a member of in the 1990s: I filled out my application before the recent elections. I had been questioning the terms of my political engagement for a while - thinking of not voting, having faith only in trade unions, flirting with the Greens – but when the notice of candidates for the local district council elections was posted in my area, it became apparent that in a large number of the 35 wards there was little democracy on offer. In my own ward there was a choice between the existing Tory councillor and a UKIP challenger; there were similarly limited options elsewhere and, in a few wards, sitting councillors were standing for re-election unopposed. Labour fielded candidates in only 15 wards, mostly in towns, and the Greens only 7. How can this be allowed to happen, we cried, throwing up our hands? Well, we had allowed it to happen. If there is no alternative political activism at the grassroots in the countryside, there can be no alternative in the democratic process. Two quotations were running through my mind when I went to the polling station to spoil my district council ballot paper: the writer David Runciman’s aphorism, “only politics can save you from bad politics” and Podemos' leader Pablo Inglesias’ observation that, “if the citizens don’t get involved in politics, others will”. It was time to stop pontificating and get active.

We are now trying to build a Labour Party branch in my village – seven members and counting – with the modest aim of making sure there is always a Labour candidate on ballot papers. More importantly, it is vital that other views are always heard, even in these conservative rural areas, and that people are reminded there is only one political party wedded to the founding principles of our fair and modern society: the NHS, comprehensive state education, affordable homes and employment rights.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Tender is the Day

The night after the General Election, only strong drink and loud, angry music was going to help me. After a diet of The Cramps, Crass and Public Image’s spectacular Theme on heavy rotation, I think I lapsed into a coma in the wee hours having finally forgotten that it was the start of, in Ken Livingstone’s words, “five more years of pure evil”.

Despite waking to the Sleaford Mods’ image of "the Prime Minister's face hanging in the clouds like Gary Oldman's Dracula", Saturday had a silver lining in the prospect of an in-store performance by Rozi Plain at the greatest record shop on the south coast, Music’s Not Dead.

Fresh from a Marc Riley session, a 6 Music Album of the Day accolade and a full band tour, Rozi had arrived solo in Bexhill on her way to a supporting Anna Calvi at Brighton Dome. Specialising in modern folk songs of reflective acceptance, her tender guitar playing and delicate vocals were the perfect balm for the soul after a night of discordant rage.

In a five song set that included three – Actually, Best Team, Jogalong - from her new album, Friend, Rozi demonstrated the versatility that enables her to be an incredibly confident solo performer and a member of close friend Kate Stables’ band, This Is The Kit. And with both acts performing at my festival of choice this summer - Green Man – I think that, come August, I might have got over the election result.